Letter: An apology to Austin Callaway
Published 5:49 pm Tuesday, January 31, 2017
After watching the LGTV video of the memorial service for Austin Callaway, the young man who was murdered by a lynch mob in LaGrange in 1940, I have never been more proud to call LaGrange my hometown. Thank you Mayor Thornton, Chief Dekmar, Judge Little, and everyone else who participated in this historic event that made national headlines for all the right reasons. At a time when hate and division dominate the national news cycle, LaGrange has set an example of how to treat people with love, respect, dignity, humanity, and justice.
Now, it’s my turn. I want to apologize for being a card-carrying member of the Callaway Educational Association (CEA) when I was a child growing up in LaGrange in the 1980s. For those who may not know, the local Callaway Foundation (no relation to Austin Callaway) spent millions of dollars on racial segregation programs through the CEA. I remember seeing an African American child being kicked out of the CEA library by a librarian who said that the child was not allowed inside because the library was a “private club.” I remember seeing “whites only” signs hanging on the fences at the CEA tennis courts. I remember a child of mixed race descent being escorted off the property of the CEA swimming pool (now the Charles Hudson Natatorium) for “trying to pass.” For trying to pass as a white person, that is. I remember an older African American woman in the CEA parking lot asking me to go inside the recreation center to find the little girl she was supposed to be babysitting that afternoon. I remember the look on her face; it was a combination of terror and shame. But she had no reason to be ashamed. I should have been ashamed. Instead, I was proud to carry my CEA membership card around in my little velcro wallet. I was proud of my “whites only” privilege. I might as well have been wearing a pointy, white hood on my head. I wish I knew the name of that woman in the parking lot so that I could apologize to her in person. She is probably still alive. After all, this all happened only 25 years ago.
Five years ago, I went to the Callaway Foundation and asked the president why it maintained racial segregation in LaGrange for so long, even long after the rest of the South had moved beyond separate but equal facilities for blacks and whites. Here’s what he said: “That’s just one of those things that continued and realized that it didn’t need to go on, and ultimately it changed . . . I think it is nothing more than a continuation. This is the way it had always been done.”
I now know that it is out of the realm of reality to expect the venerable Foundation to issue an apology for its racist policies of the past, or to even use pronouns like “I” or “we” when referring to such policies. And so, please allow me to apologize: I am sorry. I am sorry to all the kids my age who never got to see the inside of the nicest library in town because of the color of their skin. I am sorry to the kids who never got to use the CEA tennis courts, basketball courts, or natatorium because they knew that they would be publicly humiliated and forcibly removed from the property. Or worse. I am sorry to the woman who was not allowed to walk inside the CEA recreation center to find the child in her care. I am sorry for ever being proud to be a member of the CEA.
In closing, I would also like to thank Mr. Callaway – Mr. Austin Callaway – for being an inspiration for so much healing in our community and across our country. From now on, when I drive around LaGrange and see the Callway name plastered on every other building, I will think of Austin Callaway.